As everyone knows, tequila is the national tipple of Mexico. And, as perhaps many of you also know, it is an internationally recognized DOC manufactured in the state of Jalisco using a distillate of the blue agave plant. If your bottle says 100% agave that's what it is and if it just says tequila it can be 51% agave and 49% something else - usually distilled corn. I prefer a white or blanco tequila but most of what's in the stores here and everywhere else looks like this.
It's reposado and means it has been aged in oak. But looking at row after row after row of reposado tequila I started to have my doubts. I mean were all these hundreds of thousands of gallons actually aged in anything? It seemed like the Mexican equivalent of truffle oil which I know for a fact - since a friend of mine makes it in Italy - has never made the slightest acquaintance with a truffle.
I discovered that the licenses to produce tequila are controlled by the Mexican government. Indeed, all of the distillation, aging, bottling, transportation, etc. is governed by law. Upon reading this law it seemed that the aged in oak requirement was for real. Two months for reposado; one year for anejo. But then, Ah Ha, section 4.1 also allows for "mellowing". What can you put in tequila to "mellow" it? Caramel coloring. Natural oak or holm oak extract. Glycerin. Sugar based syrup. So, my suspicions confirmed, my advice to you would be to only purchase A) Blanco Tequila B) 100% agave which doesn't have any of that crap in it. Plus look for a bottle that says not only C) Hecho (made) in Mexico but also D) Bottled in Mexico. Any tequila that gets shipped abroad in bulk ends up being mixed.
That being settled, how to drink it? Mexicans do drink Margaritas but not to the extent Americans do. It seems the most popular tequila cocktail here is called a Paloma, a mixture of tequila and grapefruit soda. Yuck. For me the most civilized way to drink it is with sangrita. You can buy it already made up like this or you can make it yourself. If you have a shot of tequila, a shot of sangrita, and a shot of lime juice together it's called a bandas - the colors of the Mexican flag.
Supposedly the original sangrita wasn't tomato based but a mixture of sour orange juice, fresh pomegranate juice, salt and dried, powdered chili pequin. Since sour oranges are all over the place here and we found fresh pomegranates at the supermarket I recreated the original and it was delightfully refreshing if not what I was used to.
I found some pretty outlandish recipes for sangrita through Google. Wacky non-Mexican ingredients including soy sauce and horseradish. The noted American chef, Bobby Flay, makes sangrita and then dumps the tequila into it as if it was a Bloody Mary. But my favorite recipe is one I came up with in Italy. Surprisingly, given the fact that tomatoes figure in every other dish, it is hard to find tomato juice in Italy. So when I wanted to make sangrita there I made some homemade tomato juice and added pomegranate juice from the fruit tree in our garden plus the chili and salt. Delicious. I'm only showing you one picture of sangrita because they all pretty much look the same even though they all taste different.
In Mexican bars you are never just served a beer or a shot. There's always a snack - a botana. It can be as simple as a bowl of chilied peanuts or some chicharron. For those who don't live in North America this is chicharron. Deep fried pig skin sprinkled with salt. Incredibly popular and surely a dish which contributes significantly to the girth of the population.
The Yucatan peninsula is famous for the diversity and yumminess of its botanas. Bruce and I have a couple of watering holes we're cultivating where all you have to do is order two beers or tequila shots and they bring you so many goodies you don't need to eat lunch. These "small plates" - as the trendy saying goes - can be simple like pickled cucumbers or potatoes with sour orange juice, onion and habanero chili or more filling - scrambled eggs and chorizo (sausage) or what is practically the "national" dish of the Yucatan "pan de cazon" - shark meat layered between tortillas with black bean puree, spicy tomato sauce and maybe a little grated cheese on top.
But my absolute favorite botana is a sort of dip called Ttikil p'ak which sounds like sikh sikh pak when you pronounce it. It's a Mayan word and a Mayan dish. The best one I've had is at the bar/restaurant "El Bucanero". I asked them for the recipe and the chef, a woman named Karla Pech, happened to be making some right then in the kitchen and showed me how it's done. By the way, Pech is also a Mayan word as in Campeche, which, in the original Maya, means "place of snakes and ticks" Not a very salubrious sounding locale. Here's Ms. Pech's recipe.
6 grilled tomatoes - skins should be blackened
1/2 grilled white onion - also should be blackened
4 grilled habanero chili - you can cut back on these if you like since they're quite piccante
Put the well grilled vegetables into a blender. Then add what Ms. Pech described as ten pesos of toasted ground pumpkin seeds. Cilantro/fresh coriander to taste. Salt to taste and blend the whole to a paste. I know it doesn't look like much but, boy, is it good. If you keep it in the fridge she says it will last for three days. But how much, you ask, is 10 pesos of ground pumpkin seeds?
Well, those Masa Senoras also sell toasted ground pumpkin seeds. So it was back to the market to buy ten pesos of "pepita molida" which when I weighed it came in at about 100 grams or 4 ounces.